If GOP Populists Were Evil, They’d ‘Look Fairer and Feel Fouler’

By John Zmirak Published on December 8, 2017

I hate to take issue with the worthy essayist Sohrab Ahmari. I’d call the Iranian convert to Christianity an ally in battles inside the Catholic world. He’s the first really prominent writer to take seriously a problem I’ve been banging on about since 2013: the rise of “illiberal Catholics” (I coined the term) who’ve adopted a tribalist politics.

They reject the Anglo-American tradition of economic and religious freedom. Indeed, they’re drawing all the wrong lessons from the apparent success of Islamists. Since we can’t really beat them, it seems it’s time to join them. Such thinkers treat their identity as Catholics as a political cause in itself. They lump in together the American Revolution with the Sexual and the French. Each is an instance, they think, of rejecting the proper source of authority on earth. By which they mean the Catholic church.

Ahmari made the same call I did: for Catholics to rediscover the deep-seated humanism of St. John Paul II. In his late book Memory and Identity, John Paul praised certain aspects of the moderate Enlightenment — which inspired U.S. founders. He said that the rights claimed by Anglo-Americans from Locke to Jefferson were the proper implications of the Christian view of the person. At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic church embraced what is true and good in the tradition that goes back to the Magna Carta.

Are Christians Corrupted by Backing Trump?

But a recent column of Ahmari’s needs a response. He raises legitimate issues, to be sure. Ahmari questions how Christians and other social conservatives could embrace Donald Trump. As Ahmari writes:

It began with Donald Trump’s taunting of prisoners of war: “I like people who weren’t captured.” Then came his mocking of a disabled reporter; his suggestion that Judge Gonzalo Curiel wasn’t qualified to do his job on account of his being “Mexican”; his attacks on a Muslim Gold Star family; his flirtation with David Duke. By election night, the catalog of Mr. Trump’s insults was thick.

That first jab at P.O.W.s persuaded me, a staunch social conservative, that Mr. Trump wasn’t qualified for the office he sought. A loudmouth who denigrates war heroes, I knew, doesn’t belong in the White House.

Yet I watched with dismay as many evangelicals and social conservatives — people I consider allies — embraced him. How could they back a candidate who obviously didn’t care a whit for basic decency, let alone religious tradition?

He concludes:

[T]hese vulgar populists exact an exorbitant price: namely, complicity in the degradation, conspiracism, thinly veiled bigotry and leader-worship that is their stock in trade.

And this requires an answer.

Compared to What?

Every question in politics really comes with a silent corollary: “Compared to what?” When “illiberal Catholics” whom Ahmari and I oppose condemn the American founding for not embracing the fullness of Christian truth, they need to be asked: “Compared to what?”

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Which live alternatives today would you prefer? Or which regimes in history represent what you think is better? Do you favor medieval monarchy? Catholic strongmen like Francisco Franco? Or do you have some model which you can describe concretely that works better than the model you’re savaging?

If not, then you’re not engaged in useful criticism. (See the “Benedict Option.”) You’re rejecting your responsibility as a citizen, in favor of escapism, or intellectual “cosplay.” I understand the sentiment. As an undergrad at Yale, I found campus politics so hopeless that I identified as a “Habsburg monarchist.” But I was 18 years old.

With all that in mind, I’d like to answer Ahmari’s legitimate questions about Christian support for Donald Trump.

Iraqi Christians, Abandoned

When you ask “Compared to what?” about Donald Trump in the 2016 primary, suddenly Christians’ decisions don’t seem so puzzling. It seems that Ahmari cannot think of Donald Trump without remembering the most unsavory things the president said and did — culminating in the Access Hollywood audiotape. Fair enough.

“Iraqi Freedom” was a bitter joke to these million plus unarmed, peaceful citizens. Muslim militias bullied, killed, or drove them into exile — while brave U.S. soldiers under Bush’s command stood by, obeying orders.

When I see George W. Bush — and I mean every time I see the man’s face, in whatever context — do you know what I think of? The 1.3 million Iraqi Christians who were ethnically cleansed because of his Iraq war. To this day, many of them are still clinging to life in shipping containers, since Muslims control the refugee camps. 

“Iraqi Freedom” was a bitter joke to these million plus unarmed, peaceful citizens. Muslim militias bullied, killed, or drove them into exile. 

When Jeb Bush defended his brother’s record, and made no apologies for what happened to Iraqi Christians, that offended me. 

Our Bleeding Borders

When I see Paul Ryan’s face, do you know what I think of? The fact that America’s borders remain completely out of control. But Ryan colluded for more than ten years with the far left Democrat Luis Guiterrez in support of immigration amnesty. He called Trump’s effort to keep out sharia supporters “un-American.”

Operation Syrian Jihad

When I see John McCain, or Chris Christie, or other establishment Republicans, I think of Syria: a tortured nation, to be sure. The solution they favored, however, would have made matters far worse. They wanted the U.S. to risk a confrontation with Russia, to establish in power mythical “moderate rebels,” whom everyone knew were a fig-leaf for jihadists backed by al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Syrian Christians on the ground, as we have reported at The Stream, complained that these jihadis treated local Christians no better than ISIS did. That is what the “respectable” Republican candidates had in mind for our brother Christians in Syria. By contrast, the “crass” and unclubbable Donald Trump wisely allied with the Kurds, who protect millions of Christians from persecution.

Frodo says of Strider (Aragorn) that if he were really evil he would “look fairer and feel fouler.”

Republicans for Sotomayor

When I see Mitch McConnell and other prominent GOP senators, you know what I think of? The Supreme Court  appointees made by Barack Obama, whom they waved through with almost unanimous votes. (Meanwhile, Democrats fight conservative and pro-life nominees tooth and nail.) It was that Supreme Court that legally destroyed natural marriage. Those justices are the reason that Christian bakers and florists must fight to be avoid being bankrupted or prosecuted.

The Moral Contagion of the GOP Establishment

Maybe my memory is too long. But I think my priorities are right. I worry more about the moral contagion of being associated with an “establishment” that has shrugged at so many real-world evils, than I do about the casual vulgarities of Donald Trump. In fact, I remember the parable of Jesus:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matt 21: 28-31)

Populist Republicans like Trump aren’t so good at seeming virtuous. They bluntly speak their mind. Sometimes they make us cringe. But I’d rather be a minority Christian in the Middle East, or a Christian business owner, or a pro-life advocate, with one of them in power. They remind me of the line in The Lord of the Rings where Frodo says of Strider (Aragorn) that if he were really evil he would “look fairer and feel fouler.”

Like millions of Christian voters, I’ve had quite enough of choosing leaders based on how “fair” they manage to look.

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